NORTH BRANCH, N. J. - Patrick J. Buchanan is telling a story about two dead dogs. Specifically, the barking guard dogs in a Southwest border town that ate glass-spiked meat - a meal, he suggests, tossed at them by illegal immigrants seeking silence as they sneaked into this country.
Rousing the crowd at the New Jersey Reform Party convention this week, Buchanan denounces a "gutless" government that won't defend its border with Mexico and calls for putting U.S. troops there and ridding the country of illegal immigrants. His supporters, who call themselves the Pitchfork Army, roar their approval with giddy shouts of "Stick 'em!"
The New Buchanan, who quit the Republican Party last year to run for president on the Reform ticket, sounds a lot like the Old Buchanan. And it is precisely this familiar rhetoric that, depending on who's talking, has the party in complete disarray, or poised for a new dose of power.
Either way, this third party is at war with itself. How else to describe an organization in which one member recently called another "biological waste" in a party communiquM-i and where state conventions have devolved into name-calling, resignations and protests?
The "Buchanan brigadiers" argue they are enlisting new members and reviving a flailing party whose numbers and influence have vastly diminished in recent years. But supporters of party founder Ross Perot contend that the Buchanan forces do not care about reforming government or winning the 2000 race. Instead, the Perot backers say, Buchanan is only interested in remaking the 8-year-old party into an ultra-conservative fund-raising arm that will sustain him in future years.
Buchanan steadily plows on, working toward ballot access in all 50 states. Along the way, he serves up the Reform Party line against free trade and open borders while adding his signature arguments against gun control, abortion rights and the decline of morality.
But, some say, behind Buchanan's forward march is disarray.
In New Jersey, state Reform Party Chairman Ira Goodman quit the day before the convention, and his dwindling band of allies stayed away, too. Goodman is leading a draft-Perot movement. Even though Russell Verney, a spokesman for Perot, said the Texas billionaire has "no interest whatsoever" in running and has spent no money on this race, people like Goodman feel desperate enough to try to nominate him anyway.
"This party is Ross Perot's child," laments Goodman. "When a father gives birth to a child, he doesn't let it die. Ross Perot sees how this child is being destroyed by these Buchanan people, and he needs to save it."
Buchanan supporters say their critics won't let anyone but Perot control the party and are blocking the new guard out of spite. Without a candidate, Buchanan says, their resistance is just "obstruction."
"I think the feeling is they're very surprised at the numbers and strength we have," Buchanan told reporters this week, explaining the party infighting over his candidacy. "I think there's a measure of astonishment and recoil over how strong our numbers are. When we start winning state after state, people feel they're being overwhelmed by Buchanan forces."
Buchanan does not look fazed by any of it. He strides into the drab conference room at the Raritan Valley Community College, where 150 supporters will endorse a pro-Buchanan slate of delegates, and has the audience hollering in minutes. He hammers away on nationalistic themes and takes every chance to mock GOP candidate George W. Bush - whose supporters he would be most likely to attract in the general election.
"W. doesn't know where we're going," he says. "He doesn't have a clue. He was at a frat party that night."
That kind of criticism could conceivably siphon much-needed votes from Bush in a tight race. Right now, though, Buchanan is barely on the radar screen, hovering around 2 percent in the latest polls. The only one who might possibly be feeling threatened by the Buchanan campaign these days is the elderly woman who burst into tears after the candidate's supporters chanted "lock and load!" -- an old Buchanan rallying cry -- to drown her out at the recent California convention.
At the New Jersey convention, the rhetoric was just as hot.
"This country was founded and designed by European people," declared John Mele, 44, an insurance agent from Basking Ridge who wants the government to severely restrict immigration. "We don't want to remake ourselves with a third-world culture of an India or a Mexico or a Nigeria."
Others came to the New Jersey convention because they like Buchanan's positions on the traditional Reform Party agenda, which calls for everything from curbing campaign spending to paying off the debt.
"The other two parties aren't tackling the issues that are important, like the unbalanced trade arrangements," said John Harrison, 74, a retired teacher from nearby Newtown, Pa., who supported Perot in 1992. "I like Pat Buchanan because he agrees with me."
Many states are suffering Reform Party meltdowns. The Iowa Reform Party chairman has quit over Buchanan, the Connecticut Reform Party has written a blistering censure of the candidate, the Colorado counterpart wants his resignation and the Wisconsin party chairman is accusing the likely nominee of rounding up supporters by enlisting drunks in bars.
In Texas last weekend, the Buchanan forces cited a procedural problem and denied voting access to two county delegations - including Dallas County, home of Perot. Loyalists from the early days of Perot's movement said they would leave the party en masse if it became ultra-conservative.
While Buchanan has promised not to change the party platform, which is silent on the issue of abortion, he is planning to add a statement to it outlining his opposition to the procedure.
At state party conventions, Perot diehards and Buchanan supporters accuse each other of keeping the other side out of the party with obscure technical arguments. Some say they will back Natural Law Party candidate John Hagelin, who is also running for the Reform Party nomination. Some Perot faithful want the party to give back its $12.6 million in federal dollars and reorganize for the 2004 campaign.
"I'd just as soon have no candidate than Buchanan," said Victor Good, head of the party in Colorado. "He's building up the right wing party of America with this candidacy - that's his sole intention."
This is nonsense to Joe Sansone, the new chairman of the New Jersey Reform Party and a longtime Buchanan supporter. "You've got to be on dope if you think I'm doing this because I don't think we can win," he says.
Now a handful of Perot supporters are threatening to try to cancel the August convention in Long Beach, Calif., fearing - they say - that it will turn violent.
This comes after William Shields, the Delaware state party chairman and a Buchanan supporter, said in an e-mail to party members that the national secretary, Jim Mangia, an openly gay party member, should be "physically ejected" from the convention with other "biological waste." Mangia says the party has turned to "hateful" rhetoric. Shields says he was warring with Mangia over Buchanan's record and calls it "a long reach into absurdity" to suggest his comments were anti-gay or threatened violence.
Buchanan has said the party factions will line up in unison like the Rockettes by the time of the convention. But if recent months are any indication, that stage could prove pretty slippery.